I am a huge fan of monkey studies—especially those that prove that if given the opportunity, monkeys will naturally steal cars or masturbate with pies or get drunk and sleep with their co-workers. You know the type; they make great human-interest stories on the evening news. The angle is always the same: these behaviours are genetically hardwired into the primate brain—theirs and ours—so it’s not our fault if we act deplorably. A few months ago, for example, Duke University announced the results of a study that showed that monkeys will “pay” juice to ogle pictures of female monkeys’ hindquarters or of high-ranking monkeys’ faces. Immediately, bloggers and local news stations started yakking about monkey porn. “Porn!” they cried. “Monkeys love porn!”
ILLUSTRATION BY MORGAN CHARLES
This really shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s hung around the monkey cage at the zoo for more than three minutes. More interesting, to me, is the bit about the high-ranking monkeys. I’m sure I don’t need to point out what a celebrity-obsessed culture we inhabit, what with Us magazine, Hello! and Entertainment Tonight clogging our peripheral vision. Monkeys or not, I think that some element of celebrity interest must be hard-wired into our brains. Even those whom you’d least suspect can be observed flipping through the magazines at the end of the grocery checkout aisle. Music geeks obsess over musicians, book nerds obsess over authors, creepy old guys obsess over nubile, young starlets. Everyone is entranced by some group of alpha humans.
In other words, all you need to do to make mundane things more interesting is add a celebrity. VH1, MTV’s music network for old people, has always known this—all of their hit shows have revolved around celebrity worship. It started with Behind the Music, a much-parodied program that took the viewer on a documentary-style journey through a band’s humble beginnings, meteoric rise, crashing comeuppance and contrite comeback. It was a kick-ass show, especially the Def Leppard episode.
The success of Behind the Music, particularly in comparison to the rest of the network’s programming, turned VH1 from a music channel to an arena for celebrity vivisection. There’s The Fabulous Life Of, in which a Robin Leach analogue details the wealth and spending habits of some criminally overpaid movie star, and VH1 All Access, a tabloid clip show rife with smarmy commentators. Most recently, the network has pooped out a bundle of shows branded “Celebreality.” The tag line is “It’s more fun with famous people,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
The Celebreality package includes such classics as The Surreal Life and Strange Love. These shows are just like your run-of-the-mill reality programs, only with J-list celebrities instead of “ordinary” people. Seriously, these folks are the bottom of the barrel. Only on VH1 would Wendy the Snapple Lady have star power. You’d think that the shoddy calibre of famous people would make the shows less interesting to watch, but because these poor souls are desperate to reclaim even a tiny bit of limelight, they’re shockingly eager to be degraded—not eating-rat-semen-on-Fear-Factor degraded, but close. Take the show Celebrity Fit Club. A bunch of nominally famous fat people agree to be starved, publicly shamed by “experts” like Billy Blanks (that Tae Bo dude) and then weighed in front of the whole world to see who shed the most bulk. VH1 shows the whole thing—workouts, breakdowns and all—and the weekly weigh-in takes place in front of a panel of mean, self-righteous skinny people.
Seven-figure cash prizes couldn’t convince most civilians to do this, and yet there’s Daniel Baldwin, the Tito of the Baldwin clan, sweating the oily sweat of public despair. Considering that reality TV is ebbing in popularity these days, this may seem like a strange choice (for both VH1 and the celebrities), but oddly Celebreality succeeds where civilian reality shows fail. Those other shows feature “real” people “really” interacting in “real” life. While mildly entertaining at times, the concept never quite works because the strings are so obvious. Even the most catatonic viewer can see how producers manipulate the “reality” of the shows to create narrative and conflict out of the noise of boring human interaction. From the very start, this kind of programming required a silent contract between viewer and producer to suspend reality to accept “reality.”
Celebreality has the opposite effect. We’re used to seeing celebrities under glass, in the highly manipulated environments of television interviews, commercials and movies. Even candid paparazzi shots don’t tell us much about the lives of the people we watch. So the reality-show format, though contrived, is still much more freewheeling than the way we usually observe famous people. The key is access. We’re permitted into the lives of famous people, and that’s fundamentally interesting. The “real” interactions of “regular” people need some spicing up to be worth watching—otherwise you might as well just get a pair of binoculars—but seeing celebrities react to stimuli is novel enough to be watchable all on its own.
To me, celebrity watching feels a little icky. Celebreality is probably the final rattling breath of a long-moribund network. Hell, reality TV of every stripe will probably be seen in the future as the last pathetic flatulence of a culture choking to death on its own shitty diapers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel compelled to watch it. All I can offer is the rest of my juice, and the excuse that it’s written into my genes. And believe me, that’s more than you’ll get from the monkeys.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn’t get what the big deal is about the OC. No offence.